TITLE: On "Devoid of Content" AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 02, 2005 1:46 PM DESC: A recent article by noted literary theory professor Stanley Fish has aroused considerable interest among CS folks -- for good reason. ----- BODY: A couple of days ago, blog reader Mike McMillan sent me a link to Stanley Fish's New York Times op-ed piece, Devoid of Content. Since then, several of my CS colleagues have recommended this article. Why all the interest in an opinion piece written by an English professor? The composition courses that most university students take these days emphasize writing about something: current events, everyday life, or literature. But Fish's freshman composition class does something much different. He asks students to create a new language, "complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students". He argues that the best way to learn how to write is to have a deep understanding of "a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships." His students achieve this understanding by having to design the mechanisms by which sentences represent relationships, such as tense, number, manner, mood, and agency. Fish stakes out a position that is out of step with contemporary academia: Learning to write is about form, not content. Content is not only the not the point; it is a dangerous delusion that prevents students from learning what they most need.
Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.Fish doesn't say that content isn't important, only that it's should not be the focus of learning to write. Students learn content in their science courses, their social science courses, and their humanities courses -- yes, even in their literature courses. (I, for one, am pleased to see Fish distinguish the goals of the composition courses taught in English departments from the goals of the literature courses taught there. Too many students lose interest in their comp courses when they are forced to write about, oh, a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Just because a student doesn't connect with twentieth-century lyric poetry doesn't mean that he shouldn't or can't learn to write well.) So, how is Fish's argument relevant to a technical audience? If you have read my blog much, you can probably see my interest in the article. I like to read books about writing, to explore ways of writing better programs. I've also written a little about the role form plays in evaluating technical papers and unleashing creativity. On the other side of the issue, though, I have several times recently about the role of real problems and compelling examples in learning to program. My time at ChiliPLoP 2005 was spent working with friends to explore some compelling examples for CS1. In the context of this ongoing discussion among CS educators, one of my friends sloganized Fish's position as "It's not the application, stupid; it's the BNF." So, could I teach my freshman computer programming class after Fish's style? Probably not by mimicking his approach note for note, but perhaps by adopting the spirit of his approach. We first must recognize that freshman CS students are usually in a different intellectual state from freshman comp students. When students reach the university, they may not have studied tense and mood and number in much detail, but they do have an implicit understanding of language on which the instructor can draw. Students at my university already know English in a couple of ways. First, they speak the language well enough to participate in everyday oral discourse. Second, they know enough at least to string together words in a written form, though perhaps not well enough to please Fish or me. My first-year programming students usually know little or nothing about a programming language, either as a tool for simple communication or in terms of its underlying syntactic structures. When Fish's students walk into his classroom, he can immediately start a conversation with them, in a rich language they share. He can offer endless example sentences for his students to dissect, to rearrange, to understand in a new way. These sentences may be context-free, but they are sentences. In a first-year programming course, instructors typically have to spiral our dissection of programs with the learning of new language features and syntax. The more complex the language, the wider and longer the spiral must be. Using a simple computer language might make an approach like Fish's work in a CS1 course. I think of the How to Design Programs project in these terms. Scheme is simple enough syntactically that the authors can rather quickly focus on the structure of programs, much as Fish focuses on the structure of sentences. The HtDP approach emphasizes form through its use of BNF definitions and "design recipes". However, I don't get the sense that HtDP removes content from the classroom so much as it removes it from the center of attention. Felleisen et al. still try to engage their students with examples that might interest someone. So, I think that we may well be able to teach introductory programming in the spirit of Fish's approach. But is it a good idea? How much of the motivation to learn how to program springs from the desire to do something particular? I do not know the answer to this question, but it lies at the center of the real problems/compelling examples discussion. In an unexpected twist of fate, I was thumbing through Mark Guzdial's new book, Introduction to Computing and Programming with Python: A Multimedia Approach, and read the opening sentences of its preface:
Research on computing education clearly demonstrates that one doesn't just "learn to program." One learns to program something [5,20], and the motivation to do that something can make the difference between learning and not learning to program .(The references are to papers on situated learning of the sort Seymour Papert has long advocated.) I certainly find myself in the compelling problems camp these days and so am heartened by Guzdial's quote, and the idea embodied in his text. But I also feel a strong pull to find ways to emphasize the forms that will help students become solid programmers. That pull is the essence of my interest in documenting elementary programming patterns and using them to gain leverage in the classroom. Regardless of how directly we might use Fish's approach to teach first-year courses in programming, I am intrigued by what seems to me to be a much cleaner connection between his ideas and the CS curriculum, the traditional Programming Languages course! I'll be teaching our junior/senior level course in languages this fall, and it seems that I could adopt Fish's course outline almost intact. I could walk in on Day 1 and announce that, by the end of the semester, each group of students will have created a new programming language, complete with a syntax, a set of primitive expressions, rules for translating programs, and the whole bit. Their evolving language designs would serve as the impetus for exploring the elements of language at a deeper level, touching all the traditional topics such as bindings, types, scope, control structures, subprograms, and so on. We could even implement our growing understanding in a series of increasingly complex interpreters that extract behavior from syntactic expressions. Actually, this isn't too far from the approach that I have used in the past, based on the textbook Essentials of Programming Languages. I'll need to teach the students some functional programming in Scheme first, but I could then turn students loose to design and implement their own languages. I could still use the EOPL-based language that I call Babel as my demonstration language in class. School's barely out for the summer, and I'm already jazzed by a new idea for my fall class. I hope I don't peak too soon. :-) As you can see, there are lots of reasons that Fish's op-ed piece has attracted the attention of CS folks. It's about language and learning to use it, which is ultimately what much of computer science and software development are about. Have you heard of Stanley Fish before? I first ran into him and his work when I read a blog entry by Brian Marick on the role the reader plays in how we write code and comments. Brian cited Fish's work on reader-response criticism and hypothesized an application of it to programming. You may have encountered Fish through Brian's article, too, if you've read one of my oldest blog entries. I finally checked the book by Fish that Brian recommended so long ago out of the library today -- along with another Fish book, The Trouble with Principle, which pads my league-leading millions total. (This book is just for kicks.) -----